A refined, subtle, and sophisticated drama like The Winslow Boy represents everything that’s sorely missing from our culture, so I wish I could rise to it. Adapting a 1947 play by Terence Rattigan, which in turn was based on actual events, writer-director David Mamet handles each scene as if placing a fine China cup delicately onto a shelf. An apt analogy: Mamet is essentially a butler to the material. In the past, Mamet has specialized in macho intellectual gamesmanship peppered with profanity; lately, he has chosen more artful projects, like The Spanish Prisoner, a precise and sterile Hitchcockian piece, and now this seemingly atypical period piece.
You may want to applaud Mamet’s iron grip on his storytelling. Technically, this is an elegant piece of work. Yet some of us prefer Mamet the scrappy, surly poet of obscenity, whose American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross burst out all over with the desperation of defeated men. Perhaps that stage of his career is gone; when Mamet turned his hand to film directing, he also turned into a neat freak. Nobody is likely to be much offended by the (literally) G-rated Winslow Boy; no one is likely to be very excited, either. It’s as if Mamet thought that cinema existed only to preserve a performance. The Winslow Boy is terribly stagy, and I don’t feel that it gains anything from having been filmed.
The story, set in 1912, is simple. An English boy of 14, Ronnie Arthur Winslow (Matthew Pidgeon), has been booted out of the Royal Naval Academy. Reason? He is accused of forging and cashing a postal order. Ronnie’s well-to-do family automatically assumes he couldn’t have done it. His elderly father (Nigel Hawthorne) spares no expense in the boy’s defense — it’s as if it were the crime of the century and the Winslow name would be forever tainted by scandal. Ironically, it’s the father’s very indignance and perseverance that ensure the case’s notoriety; the whole affair becomes a sort of turn-of-the-century O.J. trial, a media bonanza sparking parodies and merchandise, and everyone gets sick of hearing about it. If the father had kept his mouth shut, no one would have known about it.
The Winslow Boy is really only marginally about the matter of the boy’s accusation and possible exoneration. It focuses more on his family, including his older sister Katherine (Rebecca Pidgeon, who is the director’s wife), a suffragette who toys with a ticklish and combative (if poorly developed) rapport with the boy’s legendary attorney, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam). The movie doesn’t give us a rousing courtroom finale; everything happens offscreen — or, I should say, offstage. Occasionally, characters will also move away from our earshot and whisper something to conceal it from us, further underlining the movie’s theatrical origins. Film is an intimate medium capable of picking up the softest whisper, and here’s Mamet taking his characters across the room so we can’t hear them. The filmmaking seems to be stuck in 1912, too.
Mamet’s intentions are fine and noble, except for one major problem: I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters, so it disappointed me as a character study. The starchy repression of turn-of-the-century, upper-class Brits must have appealed to Mamet; he must’ve admired their reserve. Unfortunately, as a filmmaker he shares their starchiness; he doesn’t even have a very strong visual sense (he never has). The Winslow Boy is like a perfectly typed term paper on a subject you’re not especially interested in; you can give it an A for neatness of presentation, but none of it stays with you. Mamet is getting so austere and rigorous that he drains all the life out of his art. The Winslow Boy is handsome and sturdy and hollow — an elegant, empty armoire of a movie.